ATLANTA – It was natural that Kirby Smart and Scott Cochran would become close.
“Really close,” said Cochran, Alabama’s strength and conditioning coach.
Cochran and Smart – now Georgia’s head coach – were both members of Nick Saban’s original coaching staff at Alabama. They spent nine seasons together in Tuscaloosa.
The long hours and common goals create strong bonds among coaches. But Cochran and Smart were more than just coworkers. Their families grew close, too.
“I’m very close to Scott,” Smart said. “Scott’s a tremendous strength coach. His family and I have been close to each other. We have kids the same age, kind of the same grades. His wife and my wife are very close friends. I have a lot of respect for Scott. I think he’s one of the best in the country at what he does.”
Smart and his wife, Mary Beth, have three children: Weston, Julia and Andrew. So do Cochran and his wife, Cissy: Beau, Savannah and Lucy. The children are around the same ages and grew up together in Tuscaloosa. They lived in the same neighborhood. They sometimes took their vacations in the offseason together.
There was the on-field part of their relationship, which spanned nine seasons, four conference championships and four national championships. Then there was the off-field friendship.
“Both,” Cochran said. “It grew from both sides.”
Both coaches were cornerstones of Saban’s program. Smart’s defense led the nation nearly every year, and Cochran built a name for himself as a fanatical motivator and strength coach. When Smart left for Georgia, he tried to hire Cochran.
Cochran ultimately chose to remain in Tuscaloosa, but said it was a difficult decision.
“The godfather of football is Coach Saban,” he said. “Come on, now.”
He declined to say whether he’d ever consider working for Smart in the future.
Smart eventually hired Scott Sinclair as his strength and conditioning coach. Smart and Cochran have moved past that moment from 2015 when Cochran had to decide on his future.
“That never was a big issue for me,” Smart said. “I think Scott (Cochran) does a great job. I think the Scott we got has been probably the biggest blessing and asset for our program. He’s been kind of the unknown secret to the fact that we’ve been very fortunate (with injuries).”
Smart’s move didn’t end their relationship, but it did change it. Cochran and Smart don’t speak much during the season now. Cochran answered a few questions when Smart started at Georgia to help set up the strength and conditioning program. Because coaches at Alabama are so focused, Smart hadn’t always known everything about Cochran’s work.
“Guys leave here all the time,” Cochran said. “And my position for Coach Saban, I help all these guys. Any time I can help even Mario (Cristobal), (Billy) Napier, guys that have left in the past, we’re always trying to help them out, let them know the process of the little things they don’t get to see.”
But that’s ended now.
Cochran said he expected Smart to have this kind of success when he left to run his own program. He imagined a day when the two programs might be playing in Atlanta, but an SEC championship game seemed like the more likely meeting spot.
A win on Monday would give Cochran and many of the Alabama coaches a win over a coach they came to be friends with for years. There’s respect on both sides of the relationship. A loss would mean one of his friends has won a national championship.
But losing to Smart wouldn’t make things any easier for Cochran.
“Soften the blow?” Cochran said. “Come on, now.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.